Blog · Fitness

Knowing your heart rate zones

My sister and I went for a walk the other day with our kids; I pushing my twins and she pushing her soon-to-be adopted son. I tracked our walk using the RunKeeper app on my phone. We were averaging about a 15 minute mile pace. At that pace, we could polish off 4 to 4.5 miles each hour. According to, that qualifies as a vigorous activity. We felt like we were moving along pretty quickly but the conversation never lagged. Clearly, we weren’t walking fast enough that talking was an issue, which means this was not a vigorous activity. Not for us at this time, anyway.

That got me thinking about the importance of knowing your own fitness level and what activities actually get your heart rate up. You know when you exercise it’s important to get your heart rate up. What you may not know or fully understand are the different heart rate zones and which activities land you in which zone. So today, I’m going to break it down and give you some examples.

How hard is your heart working-

To start, it’s important to know what your maximum heart rate is. At any point during exercise, your heart rate should not exceed your maximum. All the heart rate zones are a certain percentage of this number. To calculate your maximum heart rate, subtract your age from 220.

There are three heart rate zones you should know about:

  • Peak Zone. The peak zone starts at 85% of your maximum heart rate. This is high intensity exercise. Your heart rate should only enter this zone for short periods of time, such as when you sprint during interval training.
  • Cardio Zone. The cardio zone is 70-84% of your maximum heart rate. This is medium to high intensity exercise. When you’re in this zone, you’re working hard but not straining. If your goal is to get in a good cardio workout, then you should spend most of your time in this zone. When you’re in this zone, your body is burning calories from both fats and carbs.
  • Fat Burn Zone. The fat burn zone is 50-69% of your maximum heart rate. This is low to medium exercise. When you’re in this zone, a higher percentage of calories are burned from fat. This sounds awesome, and it is, but you also need to know that you burn fewer calories in this zone. So while you may be burning more calories from fat, you’re not burning as many calories per minute as you would in the other zones.

Now, to know what heart rate zone your hitting during an activity you have to know what your heart rate is during that activity. To do this, pause activity and take your pulse – either on your wrist or neck – for 10 seconds then multiply that number by 6.

I’m 31 years old. This makes my maximum heart rate 189. Here is how my heart rate zones break down.

  • Peak Zone = 160 BPM
  • Cardio Zone = 132-159 BPM
  • Fat Burn Zone = 95-131 BPM

Let’s say my heart rate was 115 BPM while walking with my sister. That means I was in the fat burn zone. The calories I was burning came from fat though I burned fewer calories than I would have if I ran that distance.

If my mom had completed the same walk at the same pace, the numbers would look different for her. My mom’s maximum heart rate is 163. Here is how her heart rate zones break down.

  • Peak Zone = 139 BPM
  • Cardio Zone = 114-138 BPM
  • Fat Burn Zone = 82-113 BPM

If my mom’s heart rate was 115 BPM during that same walk, she would have been in the cardio zone. It would have put more stress on her heart to walk that distance at that pace than it did on mine.

You may be thinking, “This is all very interesting but what does it mean to me?” Not only does knowing which heart rate zone you’re in help you understand the amount of calories you’re burning during exercise, it also helps you gauge your level of fitness. In turn, that helps you know when you should push yourself harder and when you should back off.

If walking at a 15 minute mile pace puts you in your peak zone, then your heart needs better conditioning. In other words, if simple tasks leave you short of breath then completing those tasks is forcing your heart rate into a zone that should only be reached during intense exercise. It is a sign that you should start slow but work to improve your cardiovascular conditioning for the sake of your heart.

If I go for a jog and my heart rate never exceeds 140 BPM then I know I can push myself harder. For maximum gains in speed and strength, I should add a few sprints to my run. I’ve got a lot of room to increase my heart rate before I reach my peak zone, so I should push myself harder.

There are many ways to pursue cardiovascular conditioning. Some are easy and others are intense. With all the possibilities available, there must be at least one or two activities you could find that you enjoy. Here are some good options:

  • Walking
  • Jogging / Running
  • Cycling
  • Rowing / Canoeing
  • Hiking
  • Dancing
  • Tennis
  • Chopping wood
  • Kick boxing
  • Zumba
  • Swimming

To really make a difference and improve your heart health, you should complete 30 minutes of some type of moderate cardio exercise (think cardio zone) two to three times a week. This will keep your heart strong and improve your endurance and stamina. Next week, we’ll take a closer look at identifying your target heart rate for any given exercise.

What cardio do you like to do?


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